Media Malpractice

Kevin Drum passes on this Times-Picayune story that apparently, New Orleans in general and the Superdome in particular were not quite the post-apocalyptic-mad-max killing zone they were portrayed as:

"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two
sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime
had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national
media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just
accepted what people (on the street) told them....It's not consistent with the
highest standards of journalism."

....The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood
victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as
the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them.
[Mayor Ray] Nagin told [Oprah] Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost
animalistic state."

Drum has an odd way of introducing the story, saying that "conventional wisdom about the Superdome and Convention Center was wrong" and introducing the story as an "urban legend".  Conventional wisdom? Urban legend?  This isn't a story that was created around water coolers, this is a story that was reported like this by the major media.  If the Times-Picayune story is right, then a better lead would be "Major Media Greatly Exaggerated Deaths and Disorder at Superdome". 

What Drum is so coy about pointing out is that this is yet another example of the media falling in love with a story line and selectively choosing facts, and where necessary, suspending disbelief, to support that story line.  First, the media wanted what it always wants in a disaster:  the big story that will draw viewers  (Did anyone else notice last week during Rita that when the hurricane went from category 3 to 5, all the media said it was much more dangerous at 5, but when it went back down to 3, they all said its just as dangerous at 3 as 5).  As the days progressed, the media fell in love with a new story, the story of a racist administration that was abandoning blacks to chaos.

OK, well here is my new story line:  Its about a media that won't even trust General Honore when he announces the location of the hurricane Rita evacuation site without peppering him with 20 useless questions but is willing to believe, without evidence, that a mostly black population would in a period of two days descend into Lord-of-the-Flies level violence, murder, and yes, they even mentioned cannibalism.   Message to blacks from the media: The elite media types feel your pain, support litmus test issues like affirmative action, but they will assume that at your heart you are all murderers and cannibals.   Who are the freakin' racists here, anyway?   Heck, a black "social justice advocate" started the cannibalism rumor in print.  With leaders like these, do African-Americans need enemies?

And, by the way, there is a second really interesting story line here about how the major media's desire to portray the situation in New Orleans as bad as possible, even if the facts did not support it, actually slowed the pace of help to victims.  Any number of volunteers shied away from entering the damaged area, afraid for their own safety.  Many more were turned away from the area by authorities who were afraid they could not protect them.  There is no doubt in my mind that the media's fact-free coverage, skewed to make things look as bad as possible, made things worse for victims in the early days after the hurricane, all in the name of higher ratings.  If Walmart or Haliburton had done something to impede the rescue in the name of higher profits, they would be hung out to dry.  OK, I am waiting for a similar outcry against ABC and CNN and FOX, because it seems that that is exactly what they are guilty of.

Update:  From the LA Times:

"If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of
middle class white people," [New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor] Amoss said, "it would not have been a
fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering."

A lot of the blame, though seems to also fall at the footsteps of the Mayor and Chief of Police:

Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three
weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching
dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."...

Some of the hesitation that journalists might have had about using the
more sordid reports from the evacuation centers probably fell away when
New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts.

Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" a few days after trouble at the Superdome had peaked.

Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the
Superdome. And Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing.

Mayor Nagin has for some reason chosen the strategy, which seems insane in retrospect, of hoping that making the situation look as bad as possible would somehow enhance his personal reputation.  This strategy seems nuts, but I will say that it is one that has worked well for black politicians for years, making political hay by pointing out how bad their black constituents have it because of outside racist forces and powers outside their control.  In this case, though, the chickens come home to roost as Mayor Nagin has been unable to shed that nasty, nagging question that African-Americans should have been asking of their black leaders for years: "Uh, but in this case weren't you the one in charge?"

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  • Max Lybbert

    If only I could turn this into a meme to rival the "what about WMD?" one travelling in liberal circles.